The Beaches of Hawksnest Bay
Gibney Beach is a magnificent stretch of white sandy shoreline. The beach has a fascinating history that is largely responsible for the unique characteristics of, and the unique characters found on, the beach today.
Until 1950, there was nothing really unusual about Gibney Beach, which was then known simply as Hawksnest Beach.
The Amerindian ancestors of the Taino were the first human beings to settle in the area establishing a village on what is now called Hawksnest Point, the headland between Hawksnest and Caneel Bays.
European settlers named the bay, Högsnest, after the hawksbill turtle, which used to nest on the beaches there. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, human activity became intense enough to convince the hawksbill turtle to nest somewhere else. This fact, however, did not result in a change of name for the bay, but when the language of St. John evolved into English, Högsnest was anglicized and became Hawksnest.
Gibney Beach, or Högsnest, as it was known then, was also inhabited for a time by European colonists and African slaves. This is evidenced by the remains of old colonial- period structures, which can be found just inshore from the beach. There is also an old well from that period, which still functions. It is now used to provide irrigation for a modern-day provision ground, fruit orchard and plant nursery.
In 1946, Robert and Nancy Gibney came to St. John on their honeymoon. The Gibneys were an integral part of the "Beat Generation" the center of which was New York City's Columbia University. Among their crowd were the poet, Robert Lax, the painter, Ad Reinherdt, and the author, Thomas Merton.
The Gibneys rented a cottage in Cruz Bay and later leased the home of Julius and Cleome Wadsworth on Denis Bay. In 1949, they moved out to Henley Cay, where they lived in a small building, the remains of which can still be found on the island. (Their friends Lax and Reinherdt visited the Gibneys on Henley Cay and stayed for a summer.)
In 1950, the Gibneys bought a forty-acre parcel on Hawksnest Bay and constructed a house just inland from the center of the beach. They had three children.
The Gibney children followed in their parent's footsteps. Like their father and mother, they were well liked and accepted by the native population and would receive many local visitors. In addition, they attracted a good following of Continentals.
The beat generation evolved into the hippies and when the Gibney children were teenagers they had many friends among the flower children who would often congregate at Hawksnest. Today the tradition continues, and there is still is a definite tendency for Gibney Beach to draw an offbeat or "off the beaten track" assembly.
When Robert and Nancy Gibney died, the beach, and the property behind it, was left to their three children and the land was eventually divided amongst them. Today, the parcel adjoining the old Oppenheimer house, bordered by a white picket fence, is privately owned by Teri Gibney, wife of the late John Gibney, and her son, Tommy. The parcels of beachfront land belonging to the other two Gibneys have been sold to the National Park, with the proviso that one of the heirs has the lifetime right to live in the Gibney house, and the other retains the right to land access to his former section of beach.
Upon the death of J. Robert and later Kitty, Oppenheimer, their daughter Toni inherited the property. When Toni died the property was left to "the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area."
"The people of St. John" proved to be a nebulous entity and, as no provisions were made for the upkeep of the property, the house and land fell into disrepair. Graffiti covered the walls, and the house was vandalized.
Toni's dream was finally realized when the Virgin Islands Government took charge of the property and created a Community Center there. Today, for a nominal fee, the Center can be rented out for Community functions, such as Senior Citizen outings, Boy Scouts, local Reggae and Calypso bands, picnics, weddings, birthday parties etc.
Right off the Community Center (the old Oppenheimer house) is a shallow reef, which occasionally breaks through the surface of the water. Much of this reef was negatively impacted when a heavy rain occurred during the excavation for the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic. Tons of earth were washed down into Hawksnest Bay and the resulting turbidity damaged much of the coral in the bay. Today the reefs are coming back to life and you will see some beautiful live elkhorn and boulder coral, along with fire coral and other examples of reef life. Schools of small fish such as, goatfish, grunt and tang can commonly be seen in the area.
A narrow fringing reef runs along the eastern coastline. Close to the beach is a section of beautiful brain coral. The reef here is colorful and there is an abundance of small and medium size fish. Look for parrotfish, angelfish, squirrelfish, trunkfish and trumpetfish. Also, observe the predators such as yellowtail snapper and blue runners prowling the reef edges on the lookout for fry and other small prey.
More experienced snorkelers can continue along this eastern coast to the point and around to Perkins Cay and Denis Bay. Along the way is a small beach where you can stop and rest. Just before you come to this pocket beach you may see the remains of a sunken sailboat. As you progress northward along the coast you will encounter scattered areas of colorful coral, sponges, fish and other marine life in depths of about six to ten feet. Snorkeling here is best in the summer when there are no ground seas to churn up the water.